Lt. Ashis & Christiane Janah

Ashis and Christiane Janah who started their small-scale art production, Vallauris, in 1956 with local craftsmen in Calcutta’s Beliaghata, using the firing facilities at the Bengal Institute of Ceramics. Known as Janah Pottery, it was the earliest form of studio pottery in Calcutta, easily recogniz-able for its tin earthenware glaze on the red terracotta clay using traditional as well as semi-industrial pottery-making methods (figure 10). Brussels-born Christiane first came to India on a hitchhiking world trip and found her Indian soul. Ashis’s work was mainly slabbuilt and Christiane’s was mainly thrown and altered. They were inspired by the Bengal terracotta temple reliefs as well as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and used the designs on their range of hotel tableware. Ashis set up and worked for the company Raj niklal as works manager for a few years while they were struggling to get Vallauris going.

The Janahs were also inspired by Beatrice Wood, an American ceramic artist linked to the Dada Movement and Theosophy, who was a close associate of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay of the All India Handicrafts Board, and of J. Krishnamurti. (10) They somehow continued production through the early 1970s Naxal Movement in Calcutta despite violence on the streets, and famous artists like Laxman Pai, Paritosh Sen and Sarbari Roy Chowdhury worked with them doing murals and experimenting with clay and mixed media. They were members of the Indian Ceramic and Glass Association and started a Studio Potters Association in the ’60s.

The legacy of these artists is the slow blurring of the boundaries between the distinctions of “high” art and “craft” in the country where the ceramic medium and their protagonists are finally being acknowledged at a national level, though there are complex relations between the two even today. There is more of a reciprocal relationship between the hereditary craftsman and the contemporary ceramic artist where the craft has transformed alongside and in response to the market, new technologies and the influence of artschool graduates in “white cube” display spaces. The grand artisanal traditions need to be seen as not immovably fixed at some historical point decided on by critics and craft activists, but as traditions whose reimagining in the post-modern era will expand the possibilities of the persistent relevance of material and concept, thus re-energizing the relevance of the human hand and tacit skills in the age of virtual technology.

Both lived in Kolkata.